HIGH TIMES ON THE ALTIPLANO

ARICA | CHILE

WHEN WE LAST MET I HAD EVENTUALLY BOARDED MY BUS WITH MY FINAL DESTINATION OF ARICA ON CHILE’S NORTHERN COAST.

OR SO I THOUGHT.

By my estimation I should probably reach Arica by 12.30 / 1.00 am. I had just woken up from a surprise sleep to find the time was around 1.30. Maybe I had gotten lucky and woken up just in time, after all buses never arrive when they’re supposed too. Five hours later I pulled into the charming city of Iquique. This wasn’t Arica. In fact it was 310 kilometers not Arica.

I jumped off the bus determined to make up for lost time. I’ll just withdraw some chilean peso from the ATM, grab a ticket and board the next bus back north. Every part of that simple plan became a struggle. The ATM wasn’t working and none of the kiosks would accept my card – except one. The bus left in about an hour and a half but something about the ticket just didn’t seem right. “Stacion, aqui?” I asked the bewildered guy at the counter. No, apparently the bus left from the other station. There’s always another station. Damn. I rushed outside and managed to bargain with a taxi driver to take me there in exchange for US dollars, five to be exact which was pretty good actually. The reason became apparent. The guy literally drove around the corner to the second bus station, and with a knowing smile held out his hand for the five dollars. Not bad work after driving about 400 meters. You gotta admire people like that.

chilebraves.jpg
Isn’t this pleasant? A cemetery in the Atacama Desert

The ATM at the second bus station also didn’t work, but at least it hosted a crowded and very noisy dog fight / orgy. One dog wanted to screw another dog but the other dog’s husband /lover intervened before being quickly joined by friends and acquaintances of both sides, each dog eager to put forth their opinions on which dog should screw who. At least it beats watching Coronation Street, and ten times more original. At last, and at almost two hours late, my bus pulled in and I was back on my way to Arica. I was gonna check in at my hostel, put my feet up with a cold beer and take a well earned nap.

“Oh you’re the guy who didn’t show up last night?”

That’s never a good sign. After explaining what happened to me he shrugged. A bunch of bikers had come in last night and taken all the beds. And so the hunt continued. Luckily just around the corner was a small hostel where I got a private room for cheaper than the dorm in the previous place. So, jokes on you Chile.

CHILEATACAMA
Rising above the Atacama and onto the Altiplano

Ok so that’s sorted. Arica turned out to be a cool little city, very walkable. There is a huge cliff leering over the town known as El Morro. At the top is one of the largest flags I’ve ever seen. These central and south american countries sure do love their giant flags. I often wonder who’d win in a fight between this flag and the enormous Mexican flag flying in Mexico City’s Zocalo. It could turn out like the latest Godzilla movie.

From Arica I booked a day tour into the nearby Lauca National Park. Lauca is one of the most picturesque parts of Chile’s Altiplano. The high plains of the Andean plateau are the second highest in the world after the Tibetan. It’s not uncommon here to find yourself on roads above 14,000 feet. Many people visit San Pedro de Atacama as it’s a regular tourist spot on the Bolivia / Northern Chile circuit. I found myself here after seeing Top Gear’s adventures down Ruta 11 which dissects Lauca National Park.

chilealitplano3
A surprising amount of wildlife inhabits these high lakes at the base of the volcanoes

The park entrance lies 145 kilometers east of Arica, the bus climbed steadily upwards inching it’s way to the summit of the altiplano. Below, the wisps of fog and morning mist blanketed the Atacama desert. This is the world’s driest desert and home to some of its ugliest plants. The candelabra cactus probably feels like it can get away with putting no effort into it’s appearance what so ever purely because you have nothing else to look at.

It almost felt like being in an aeroplane as it broke through the cloud. The altiplano here continues into Bolivia where it is known as Sajama National Park. The biospheres are dominated by several huge snow capped volcanoes. On the chilean side your view is dominated by the hulking Parinacota Volcano. It stands beside Lake Chungara, one of the highest lakes in the world at 14,800 feet above sea level.

chilechungara
Lake Chungara. On the left is Volcan Parinacota, on the right and across the Bolivian border, is Volcan Sajama

It seems bizarre to realise how high you actually are here. The landscape seems so flat and barren, only occasionally is it interrupted by hills or volcanoes. You have to remember though that you could already be at 13 or 14,000 feet while standing on “flat” ground. It’s a little like the high-desert of the USA’s south west, only this one is several rungs higher up the ladder. The difference in your perception in the thin air is noticeable. It’s hard to discern exactly how far away these volcanoes are, they always seem to be popping up right in front of your face. At the rest place beside Chungara we stopped for some coca tea.

chilealtiplano4
Three flamingos walk into a lake, stop me if you’ve heard this one

The prize attraction here at Chungara are the flocks of pink flamingos dotting the lake shore. There are black things too that looked like small swans but screw them, they aren’t flamingos. It’s always cool to see such a well known and beloved animal in the wild. Here, framed by the imposing bulk of the Parinacota volcanoes and the feeling of well-being caused by the slight hypoxia, it felt much more rewarding than visiting a zoo. Subway’s was much further away here though, that’s the only downside.

chileparinocota3
These old Altiplano villages contain 60% of the world’s cute.

The park contains views of some of the largest and tallest volcanoes in the Altiplano, if not the world. The massive Parinacota Volcano is just shy of 21,00 feet while just across Chungara looms the dormant stratovolcano Sajama, which at 21,500 feet is the tallest peak in Bolivia. When you consider that Mount Fuji is a “mere” 12,400 feet they’re some sight to behold. Plus, flamingos. An interesting fact about Sajama is that it’s slopes are home to some of the world’s highest growing trees. Seeing as high plants are such a huge topic of conversation around my town I thought that was worth mentioning.

chilealtiplano2
Twin Peaks

Before exiting the park on the way back towards Arica and breathable air we stopped in the indescribably cute village of Parinacota. Here a small church is surrounded by tiny little white washed stone dwellings. Less than thirty people live here, and it’s not really surprising giving that it lies at an altitude of 14,400 feet in the shadow of a volcano, albeit it a dormant one. The tiny walled church here was the setting of a quite famous version of The Last Judgement fresco, strangely one in which only women were condemned to hell. No wonder Jeremy Clarkson loved this place so much.

chilechurch
Parinacota : women be ware!

From Arica it was a simple job of flying down to Santiago and after wandering the streets at night looking for my hostel (seemed to be a common theme with me) I eventually bedded down in the chilean capital. It was a brief but pleasant stay, despite sharing a dorm with the world’s loudest snorer – a business man who went on a rant in the bathroom about how he was sick of “fucking poor people”. Santiago was my port of call before flying to Easter Island, these days a territory of Chile known as Isla de Pascua. It’s a remote and mysterious location that not many people go out of their way to visit. Being a weirdo myself it was right up there on my bucket list. Santiago is now the only place in the world you can access the island from after flights from Lima have been discontinued.

First though I had to avoid Mother Teresa in my dorm room and avoid eye contact with the receptionist who looked so high on something that she wanted to have sex with everything around her.

Next time: I learn how to Rapa Nui, an italien guy drives me around on a scooter, and we survive a hurricane

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s